It's small actions of compassion and dignity that can restore faith in humanity, even in times of war, human conflict and terrible violence.
That, more than anything, is the intended message behind the five-part documentary series Women, War & Peace, a harrowing and occasionally spiritually uplifting portrait of how some women around the world are fighting violence with non-violence, and calling the perpetrators to account.
The legal role of the International Criminal Court and the continuing debate over public confession-and forgiveness panels, such as South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (lauded by some, dismissed by others) lie at the heart of Women, War & Peace, philanthropist filmmaker Abigail Disney told Postmedia News this past summer.
"This is one of the reasons it's so important to take a really broad, cross-cultural look at these issues," Disney said. "We take a look at places like Bosnia and Liberia, where there has been an enormous amount of international energy directed toward catching the perpetrators and bringing them to court, but not really spending the resources or time or moral energy on the rest of the picture. It's been a history of victories and failures. Liberia, Bosnia and other places like Colombia and Afghanistan have all experienced what it's like to be at the focus of international attention, and, at the same time, victims of neglect."
She says there's "no question" the international courts haven't done enough to bring justice to victims, nor remedy "the corrosive effect (that) impunity for perpetrators has on fledgling democracies going forward."
Women, War & Peace, narrated by Matt Damon, Geena Davis, Tilda Swinton and Alfre Woodard, premieres Oct. 11 on PBS. It will air over five consecutive weeks.
The first segment, I Came to Testify, is an account of how more than a dozen women, victims of imprisonment and rape by Serb-led forces in the Bosnian village of Foca, defied a centuriesold tradition of silence and confronted their attackers in an international court.
That simple act of defiance resulted in the enactment of new international laws to combat sexual violence in conflict zones.
The second segment, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, is the account of another group of women who confronted warlords and the dictatorial regime of Charles Taylor in Liberia. Leymah Gbowee, leader of the Liberian women's peace movement, is featured prominently in the program. This past month, Gbowee published a book of her experiences, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War, published by Tina Brown's Beast Books imprint.
Other segments focus on a trio of women activists in Afghanistan who are determined that their voice be heard at the negotiating table, a pair of women in Colombia who are standing up for generations of families who have been terrorized and forcibly displaced as a strategy of war and, in the final segment, an overview of the way women activists, intellectuals and community leaders around the world are starting to challenge the conventional wisdom that matters of war and peace are solely men's domain. That final segment, which will air Nov. 8, features extensive interviews with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her predecessors Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright.
Gbowee told Postmedia News that while she's proud of how far her country has come, many Liberians are still crying out for justice.
"As a community activist, the local person, not the grand international view, every time the words 'International Criminal Court' are mentioned, the first thing that comes to my mind is: Whose justice?" Gbowee said. "When I go back and forth in the sub-region, from Liberia to Sierra Leone to Ghana, I know that Charles Taylor is currently being prosecuted for his crimes. But he lives in a well-built prison. He eats three meals a day. Those who were hacked, arms and limbs hacked off, live in tents. They barely find food to eat. There's no outlet for their suffering. You spend millions, billions of dollars to prosecute one person, and yet you have a whole population of people still suffering because of that person. The question of justice - that's a big question mark for me."
It's critical that women's voices be heard, Disney told Postmedia News, if real justice is to be seen to be done in conflict zones that have experienced murder, genocide, torture, and the use of mass rape as a weapon of war.
"This is why it matters to bring women's voices into this conversation," Disney said. "The world has a long history of looking at war and talking about war in ways in which women are completely invisible. Women work mostly at the local level. The wars we look at, and in the years coming forward, are wars between people.
"The only way we can build reconciliation is at the local level, to enable people to work these things out among themselves. Governments cannot impose reconciliation and justice from above. And because women are the heart and souls of these communities, this are the only way, really, that people are going to be able to build reconciliation over the long term."